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Vikings at Cardinals Preview: Dead to Rights in the Desert

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Injuries, history, and the odds are all stacked against the Minnesota Vikings this week. Is there any chance they can pull off an upset in Arizona?

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You could see Carson Palmer on the sidelines without a helmet by the end of the third quarter in this one.
You could see Carson Palmer on the sidelines without a helmet by the end of the third quarter in this one.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

We've all had those days where absolutely nothing seems to go right from the start. Your alarm didn't go off because you set it for PM instead of AM on your phone. You didn't have time for breakfast so you swung by McDonald's on the way to work, but they screwed up your order. (Which apparently happened to Mike Zimmer this week.) While you were cursing out the drive-thru you failed to notice the pothole in the road which made you spill coffee all over yourself. So you showed up late to your important meeting looking like an absolute mess. Then you looked at the clock and realized that it was only 9:30 AM. You still had more than twelve more hours of this godawful day to deal with.

That's basically how things are going this week for the Minnesota Vikings. They're experiencing the football equivalent of Michael Douglas' day in Falling Down. On Sunday they were thoroughly embarrassed in front of their home crowd by a superior team as they watched some of their best players go down with injuries. Afterward they listened to another one of their best players complain about being marginalized. So what do the Vikings get as an encore? A primetime road game on a short week against a team that is three games ahead of--and has already defeated--the team that throttled the Vikings this past Sunday.

Suddenly spilling coffee on yourself and running a few minutes late for work doesn't seem all that bad.

When the Vikings begin their death march into the desert on Thursday night to take on the Arizona Cardinals, they'll be doing it without their best defender on all three levels of the defense. Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, and Harrison Smith are all out. Missing those three is bad regardless of your opponent; missing those three against the #1 offense in the NFL is a potential disaster. Thankfully Tom Johnson has plenty of experience but the likes of Edmond Robinson, Anthony Harris, and Shaun Prater are about to get a baptism by fire from Arizona's high-powered attack.

Carson Palmer is a year and a half older than I am. I can barely finish a rec league soccer game these days, so I'm sure you can understand my amazement at Palmer's incredible renaissance. He is third in the league in yards, second in touchdowns, and second in quarterback rating. (Palmer's numbers are 1,295, 21, and 23.3 better than Teddy Bridgewater, respectively). He is the top rated quarterback by Pro Football Focus AND Football Outsiders. Not since John Travolta in Pulp Fiction have we seen such a late-career resurgence.

Palmer is pulling it off because he can still make every single throw. Just ONCE on Thursday I want to see Bridgewater complete a pass like this. Palmer makes these kind of pinpoint passes into traffic seem commonplace:

Palmer to Floyd 20 yards

"But Eric," you say, "Bridgewater couldn't possibly make that throw because Palmer isn't getting chased out of the pocket or hit as he throws!" Fair point. But guess what? Palmer can drop dimes while getting hit too.

Palmer to Floyd 31 yards

The Rams couldn't have played better defense on that play and they still got beat for 31 yards. Palmer has been playing at another level all year and he has the weapons that allow him to stay there. Both of those passes were to Michael Floyd. It turns out Larry Fitzgerald is still awesome when he actually has a quarterback that can throw it in his zip code. If that wasn't enough, John Brown is emerging as one of the best young threats in the game. Even if the Vikings had their full compliment of defensive players--which they most certainly do not--the Cardinals would present all sorts of problems.

If only the Vikings had another safety they could depend on. Someone like Kurt Coleman of the undefeated Carolina Panthers, who is currently ahead of Cardinals superstar Tyrann Mathieu and the highly celebrated Earl Thomas in Pro Bowl voting. It sure would have been nice to have that guy on the Vikings roster. Oh wait, he was! Coleman was a Minnesota Viking as recently as August 2014, but they cut him in Training Camp! He was doing well too! I wrote this about him when I was at camp last year:

Kurt Coleman: He seemed to be more and more in the coaches' favor as the weekend went on. He's not going to threaten Smith at free safety but might be able to give the secondary some much-needed depth while helping out on special teams. I was pleasantly surprised with Coleman.

Of course hindsight is always 20/20 and it's not like I was predicting he'd lead the league in interceptions, but damn would Coleman in purple be a sight for sore eyes right about now.

At least the Cardinals offense isn't completely at full strength themselves. Chris Johnson (another Arizona player that has turned back the clock this season) is out and it sounds like Andre Ellington will miss the game as well. But when you're tackling this poorly, it doesn't really matter who's carrying the ball.

Vikings missed tackles on Willson

If that kind of comically bad tackling continues on Thursday, you can expect David Johnson to have a "Carlos Hyde Week 1" type game.

While the Cardinals boast one of the best offenses in the NFL, the Vikings couldn't have looked worse against Seattle. They managed only 125 total yards on Sunday, easily the lowest total in the NFL this season. So what the heck is wrong? Who should get the blame for the offensive woes?

I'm glad you asked. After the Seattle debacle I created a handy Vikings offensive blame pie chart:

Vikings offensive blame pie chart

For me it all starts with the offensive line. They're the "missed alarm" that sends the rest of the offense's day out of whack. They don't allow time for anything to develop, which makes Turner's play calling look worse, which doesn't give the receivers time to get open, which limits what Bridgewater can do, which makes us so angry about an 8-4 team. It's a vicious cycle. Cian Fahey of Football Outsiders wrote an excellent piece that thoroughly explains why the line is the root of most of the offense's troubles. Unfortunately there isn't a whole lot the Vikings can do about their biggest problem until the offseason.

What can change is putting a very limited offense in a better position to succeed. If Norv Turner wants to reduce his piece of the pie, how about calling more quick slants and fewer seven step drops? According to Pro Football Focus Bridgewater is pressured on 47.4% of his dropbacks this season, most in the NFL. Guess who also leads the league in 7-step drops? Yep, the Vikings. It's like being nearsighted, insisting that you sit in the very back of the auditorium for every class, and then wondering why you can't see anything.

Running a faster-paced offense seems like it could be beneficial as well. Even the FOX announcers noticed how late in the play clock the Vikings were getting to the line in the Seattle game. It doesn't give Bridgewater any time to make pre-snap adjustments and it allows the defense to dictate the coverage and personnel they want. If you can't catch the Cardinals defense off guard with your play calling, you could at least keep them on their toes with the pace.

IT'S LIKE BEING NEARSIGHTED, INSISTING THAT YOU SIT IN THE VERY BACK OF THE AUDITORIUM FOR EVERY CLASS, AND THEN WONDERING WHY YOU CAN'T SEE ANYTHING.

I give the Vikings wide receivers more blame than Teddy--for now, at least--because they aren't creating any separation. Week in and week out I watch the All-22 and expect to see Bridgewater missing open receivers and hesitating to throw into tight windows. That happens every once in a while but not nearly as often as you'd expect it to after watching the TV broadcasts.

Of course when the opposition is getting pressure literally every other snap when only rushing four, it's really hard to get open. I'm not sure what Teddy or the receivers could do differently on plays like this:

Bridgewater scramble Seattle

I know I just complained about Norv's play calling, but there were three quick-hit routes on that play. They weren't open because the Seahawks didn't feel like they needed to defend anything over the top. You'll notice that Adrian Peterson is left open downfield at the end of the play, but "Teddy throwing deep on the run to AP" isn't exactly a staple of this offense. Bridgewater threw only four passes over 20 yards against Seattle; three fell incomplete and the fourth was intercepted.

Once again, it all comes back to the offensive line for not giving anything time to develop. But even on the rare occasions where Bridgewater has time, he isn't making the defense pay downfield. Teddy's limitations are certainly a factor in the offensive struggles even if they aren't the biggest problem.

For example, we have already discussed the awful season Mike Wallace is having plenty of times here at Daily Norseman. At this point it's almost like Bridgewater doesn't even look for him. This play probably wouldn't have resulted in a huge gain but it certainly would have fared better than checking down to a well-covered Peterson. Wallace was on the same side of the field too.

Bridgewater misses Wallace checkdown to AP

It looks like Bridgewater trusts Wallace about as much as we trust Kanye West and Kim Kardashian to give their children names that aren't completely ridiculous.

What we can trust is Peterson publicly complaining about the coaching every time his involvement in the offense isn't to his liking. Everyone knows that eight carries is not nearly enough for the NFL's leading rusher. But hey Adrian, you know what might help you get more touches when your team falls behind? Being a three-down back! You're one of the greatest athletes the game has ever seen and this is your ninth year in the league. How about you try learning to pass block and run out of the shotgun? AP is one of the best runners of all time but his lack of versatility is forcing me to give some credence to the "Peterson is hindering Teddy's development" camp.

There are a few glimmers of hope that Vikings fans can cling to before the score is 14-0 halfway through the first quarter. If the pass rush can get to Palmer and force a couple turnovers, they will be able to lean on AP much more than they did against Seattle. If there ever was a time for Bridgewater to silence his critics and have the game of his young career, this would be it. Maybe the "scared" comments Seattle offered after the game will motivate Teddy to start winging the ball downfield and finally stretch the defense. The Vikings haven't won 8 games this season purely on luck. There is reason to believe that the Vikings could surprise us all and pull off the upset.

Until I present my next chart, that is:

Vikings success

We have all seen this movie before. The Vikings sucking in primetime road games isn't a quirky anomaly anymore. It's a real thing. Here are the results of the last 16 nationally televised games the Vikings have played outside of their home stadium:

  1. Cardinals 30, Vikings 17
  2. Panthers 26, Vikings 7
  3. Bears 36, Vikings 30
  4. Saints 31, Vikings 28
  5. Saints 14, Vikings 9
  6. Jets 29, Vikings 20
  7. Packers 28, Vikings 24
  8. Giants 21, Vikings 3
  9. Bears 40, Vikings 14
  10. Vikings 24, Eagles 14
  11. Bears 39, Vikings 10
  12. Packers 45, Vikings 7
  13. Packers 24, Vikings 10
  14. Giants 23, Vikings 7
  15. Packers 42, Vikings 10
  16. 49ers 20, Vikings 3
That's a record of 1-15 with the only win goin' up on a Tuesday while the immortal Joe Webb started at quarterback. Sadly I don't think "we're due" is a good enough explanation of why the Vikings could reverse that trend Thursday. The Cardinals are a much better team than the group the Vikings will be trotting out at University of Phoenix Stadium. There is a very good chance that this one will be another ugly loss on the national stage.

Therefore, may I humbly present my final and most important chart of the day:

Vikings Venn diagram


Just don't spill any coffee on yourself when it starts getting bad.

(Or booze. I'd recommend booze for this one.)

Prediction

Cardinals 34, Vikings 10

And now for the rest of my Week 14 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

PANTHERS over Falcons

"Are the Panthers the Worst 16-0 team ever? My column: "

Bills over EAGLES

Seriously, just a flip a coin for this one. It seems to be what both teams do before each game to decide whether they'll play well or be complete crap.

BEARS over Redskins

Chicago couldn't possibly lose home games to Blaine Gabbert and Kirk Cousins in consecutive weeks, could they? Of course they could, but I'm still sticking with the Bears.

Steelers over BENGALS

Pittsburgh is in serious danger of missing the postseason if they lose this one, yet they could beat whatever team wins the NFC East by 40. Football isn't fair sometimes. Thankfully the Gratuitous Picture of the Week is always fair.

"We're your favorite cheerleaders, we're the girls you love the most / We bet you want to jump on us like Antonio Brown's goalpost!" (image via therichest.com)

49ers over BROWNS

Ironically most Cleveland fans will be cheering for their QB of the Future to fail so they can draft their next QB of the Future that will undoubtedly fail.

Lions over RAMS

Jeff Fisher might hire three coaches before the game just so he can fire them to deflect blame after they lose again.

JETS over Titans

Is anyone else uncomfortable living in a world where Ryan Fitzpatrick is a viable fantasy option? I started him last week and even though he did well it felt so...yucky.

Colts over JAGUARS

"The Jacksonville Jaguars: we're still bad, but this year we're a FUN bad!" (Feel free to use that one, Jags PR department.)

CHIEFS over Chargers

San Diego is already packing it up for next season metaphorically AND literally.

BUCCANEERS over Saints

With how things are going, Vikings fans should actually be cheering for the Saints this week to make sure the Bucs don't sneak up and get the 6 seed. Nahhhhhhhhhhh.

Seahawks over RAVENS

If Seattle makes it back to the Super Bowl this season, I think a portion of their bonuses should go back to the Vikings for giving them the confidence they needed to launch their late-season run.

BRONCOS over Raiders

Thank you, Derek Carr, for showing how far you still have to go before becoming a top-level NFL quarterback. Your struggles against Kansas City made us feel a little better about Sunday's disaster. Of course I'm making the Broncos my Survivor Pool pick of the week (now only 7-6 on the season) which means you'll probably have the game of your life this weekend.

PACKERS over Cowboys

I'm afraid to say anything bad about Green Bay because I'm pretty certain the Cowboys will somehow get a 15-yard penalty for it.

Patriots over TEXANS

What's more likely--the beat up Pats losing three in a row or Bill Belichick figuring out a way to stop Brian Hoyer?

Giants over DOLPHINS

New York would be 10-2 if games were decided with 75 seconds left in the 4th quarter. So basically they're a slightly better version of the 2013 Vikings. Which is still probably good enough to beat the underachieving Fins.

Last week: 12-4
Season so far: 121-71